Egypt Independent

Eid destinations: If you can’t beat the heat, join it–in Siwa



Siwa, Egypt's vast and isolated western oasis, is not exactly known for its cool summers. Average highs for August and early September hover around 38C, and feature a sun that not even a good thatch of dried palm leaves can thoroughly protect a tourist from, no matter how committed he or she is to vacation sloth.

Add to that this year’s Ramadan and the Muslim feast known as Eid falling during these hot weeks and it seemed obvious that under no circumstances should any smart traveller worth his or her complimentary hotel bath salts make Siwa their destination at this time. Better to stay at home, chewing supermarket dates and swimming in the cool waters of your bathtub, than let a cramped overnight bus deposit you in the broiling no-man’s land of summertime Siwa during fasting days, much less the upcoming Eid celebration.

But sometimes the timing is off and you have no choice. The overnight bus, with its hyperactive air-conditioner and blaring midnight movie, leading you through the desert to the abandoned natural sauna, operates year round, and someone has to be on it. And here’s the thing. Rumors of the sinister noonday sun may hold water, reports on extreme temperatures may be accurate, and warnings against attempting to battle the heat in A/C-less eco hotels may be wise to heed, but the real truth about the Siwa oasis during late summer is that it is quite lovely.

It's quiet. The dim murmur in the town square, with its rows of closed shops, ahwas (Arabic for local coffee shops) and restaurants, is punctuated only by the regular call to prayer, the frequent clop of donkey hooves, and the rare honking of a car or motorbike horn. Men sleep in and around the shady gazebos on the main lawn. A cold soda for the non-faster can be hard to find, but without a throng of like-minded tourists and obtrusive shopkeepers trying to lure you into their spaces–and a healthy half-knowledge of local history–this Western desert oasis can feel a little like the Wild West during nap time: where anything can happen, but blessedly little does.

It's (relatively) private. Any other time of year it would be impossible to get temporarily lost in Siwa’s Shali Fort–the maze of sagging salt and mud structures which dominates the skyline like a row of chipped teeth. In the low season, however, the fort is a visitor’s private jungle gym, and the exhilaration of reaching the top only to forget which system of crags you need to retrace to get back down again becomes part of the fun (as is eventually finding the roped-off staircase, complete with trashcans and benches, which snakes beside the fort’s most important structures like the old mosque with its chimney minaret). The souvenir shops at the base of the staircase were closed during the day for Ramadan when I visited, eliminating the prospect of a hawker’s catcall ruining the romance of the descent.

It's spontaneous. Even the most last-minute trip can be easily accommodated, and cheaply. The Shali Lodge–a beautiful and reasonable ecolodge sister to both the Al Bab Inshal, a lodge tacked onto the side of the fort, and the super fancy Arere Amella–was virtually empty this August, meaning that a double room booked 15 hours in advance, even at a highly rated hotel, was no issue (catching the hotel accountant and credit card machine operator before his afternoon nap on the day of check out was, however). Just enough attention from the staff during Ramadan hours meant a series of professionally and expediently arranged excursions without overly invasive attention. Accompanying two of the kitchen staff on a break to Abu Shuruf, a local swimming spot tolerant of (modestly clothed) female bathers, was a lot more fun (and cheaper) than catching a tour bus.

It's not that hot. A few degrees higher than in Cairo, sure, but without the traffic, pollution, sweaty metro rides, or breeze-blocking high rises, the mildly higher heat of Siwa is a lot easier to tolerate. The anti-rigors of vacation, plus the surplus of shade and swimable water, make 38 in Siwa feel practically like 34. Even a trek into the desert is a respite from Cairo’s swelter, particularly considering that the winds blowing across the entrance to Egypt’s Sand Sea are so steady that the moments following a dip in the picturesque waters of Bir Wahed–a glorious lake barely at the edge of what locals call the “real” desert–are slightly, surprisingly, and delightfully chilly (almost chilly enough to make the sulphurous, tepid waters of the desert’s premiere hot spring, and the slimy walls containing it, appealing).

And finally, it's an adventure. Or, at least, it gives the impression of being one. While most enticing Egyptian attractions are siren songs to thousands of other travellers, relative solitude in Siwa is a rare opportunity. One does, after all, prefer to take a sauna alone.